Pearls in the Poo – Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve, Malawi

Pearls in the Poo
Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve, Malawi

What’s cooler than stepping in elephant poo″ Watching your mom step in elephant poo.

In summer ’05, my thoroughly southern mom and I flew to Malawi, Africa to visit an old family friend. About a month into the visit, we finally got up the nerve to travel without a “male interpreter.” Our destination: The Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve, a.k.a. Elephant Central. Starting at six a.m. one bright Malawian morning, we strutted the 2-mile trek to the bus depot, easily exchanging jumbled Tumbuka greetings with neighbors we passed on the road. Eight hours, 2 break downs, and several bruises later we were standing in the middle of a dirt road, luggage dragging in the dirt, watching our mini-bus zigzag down the otherwise empty road. Before stranding us, the bus driver had assured us that food, lodging and fun fun fun was just beyond those intimidating game reserve gates.

Not long after wandering through the gates (not realizing that elephants could come trampling through the bushes at any moment) a car with a smartly dressed British couple and their 4-year old daughter, Poppy Pearey, drove up. We found out presently that not only were we supposed to make reservations to stay on the reserve, but the lodging was about 40 times what we were expecting to pay. Honestly. We were on the verge of going aback out to the road to hitchhike or be eaten by hyenas, when we realized that we were in Africa, not America. Kicking out people that couldn’t pay wasn’t an option. What was an option was inviting us to stay in a luxury chalet for half price. With much consideration, we decided to accept.

Throughout the evening, we stepped in elephant poop - discovering giant undigested seeds that mom collected and called pearls, made sand cakes with Poppy and went on a fascinating elephant safari. At one point during the safari, mom, me and our machine gun guide, Crispin, were standing on a giant termite hill looking at the elephants rapidly and expertly surrounding us. I suddenly noticed what looked like smoke far out into the reserve.

Me: Is that smoke out there by the marsh″
Crispin: *squints and then waves his hand in dismissal* Oh, yeah, that’s just the loon.
Me: *Staring stupidly* Loons can start fires″
Crispin: No, that’s the crazy guy that lives in the marsh.
Me: There’s a loony guy living in the marsh″
Crispin: *Looks at me with that universal expression of, “Obviously.”* Yeah.
Me: * Once again forgetting we’re in Africa* Isn’t there some kind of rule against that″
Crispin: *forehead wrinkled in confusion* He doesn’t bother anything.
Me: Oh. Wow, that’s cool. *And started making plans about one day being the loon that lives in the wild elephant marsh.*

That night we ate quiche and apple fritters while hippos and baboons stared at us. Poppy asked me if the elephant was going to suck her up its trunk. I went to sleep listening to trumpeting elephants and thinking that there were worse ways to fall asleep.

In the morning we ate two breakfasts (apparently that’s how it flows in Britain), and got a ride back into town with the Peareys. I spent the short drive staring in fascination at their CD player (I hadn’t seen one for over a month), listening to Poppy repeatedly ask, “Mary Beth, I dress myself in the morning, do you″” and wondering what the heck Mr. Pearey’s job was. He did something with the High British Commission that’s secret enough not to talk about, but makes him relocate every three years to a new, remote place. (Before, somewhere in Pakistan, now Malawi). He didn’t seem the mercenary type, but you never can tell.

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